Writer-director Arie Posin explores coping with loss, living in the moment, and ultimately finding the courage to move forward in his new romance mystery, The Face of Love, starring Ed Harris and Annette Bening. Five years after the death of her beloved Garrett, Nikki (Bening) meets Tom, a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to her late husband (both played by Harris) and also shares his kindness, humor, and passion for art. As they slowly fall in love, Nikki can’t bring herself to tell Tom the truth about what attracted her to him.
Recently I landed an exclusive interview with Arie Posin who talked about how the project first came together, the personal experience that inspired the story, the challenges he encountered financing the film, why he insisted on shooting the film in Los Angeles, his thoughts on the California lottery system and its impact on runaway production, why he initially resisted shooting digitally, his collaboration with Panavision and an award-winning creative team to capture a romantic look that bucked the trend and was emotionally right for the movie, the directors and films that have inspired him as a filmmaker, and his next project, Duchess, a comedy-drama starring Glenn Close. Hit the jump to read the interview:
QUESTION: How did this project first come together and what was the inspiration behind this romantic story?
ARIE POSIN: It started with something that had actually happened to my mom a few years after my dad had passed away where she was actually at LACMA, at the L.A. County Museum. She came out and was in a crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard and looked up and saw a man coming towards her that looked like a double of my dad. She came over to see me that day, and when she told me about it, she said, “A funny thing happened to me today. I was in a crosswalk and this man came towards me.” She said it just like that — that a funny thing happened. She told me later that it took her a week to shake that feeling. She was so overcome seeing a man coming towards her with a big smile on his face and blowing past her. She said cars honked and she looked up and realized she was standing in the middle of the street and the lights had changed. She finished walking across the street and then came over to see me. Her story really touched me. I started to have dreams about it and to think about it, and then eventually to write about it.
It’s a particularly poignant story about coping with loss and having the courage to move on. What were some of the challenges you faced writing the script?
POSIN: Easily the biggest challenge is: can we get the audience to suspend their disbelief? Just on the face of it, the movie has Ed Harris playing two different characters in the same movie. So, on the most basic level, the question was: can we pull the audience along into Nikki’s journey deep enough that they will take this ride with her and buy into what could possibly be an unbelievable situation? We see people all the time that remind us of people in our lives. One of the strange and interesting things that has happened since I made the movie is that at every screening someone has come up to me and described a situation that happened to them that is remarkably similar to what happens in the movie, which was a big surprise to me. I had never heard of it happening before. I thought I was making a story about a very unique situation and it turns out it’s much more common than I ever thought. That was the biggest challenge in writing it, and then that extends into the entire creative process, because I realized early on that the only way the premise would work was I needed absolutely great actors who could so demonstrate the emotional truth in each moment that it would bring authenticity to the situation. There was no way to do it with anybody less than great actors. We were fortunate to get them, and I really don’t think the movie would have worked without them because of what they’re able to bring to it.
Can you talk a little about your writing collaboration with Matthew McDuffie and how that worked? What was that experience like?
POSIN: It was very unique for both of us, I think. I’d been sent a script of Matt’s that was just beautiful. Among many talents, one of the remarkable things he’s able to do is write dialogue for a character that just cuts right to the heart of a deeper emotion and really pulls on your heart. When I was thinking about this subject, after I read that script and I’d discovered his writing, then I read several more of his scripts and it was intrinsic across the board. I had this idea and I thought it would be really well suited to his talent and his temperament. So I pitched it to him and he got really caught up and interested in it. We agreed to write together. The complication was that Matt lived in Albuquerque and I live in Los Angeles. And so, what we ended up doing was we’d have these long conversations for hours on the phone and then we would each break away. He would write scene 6 and I would write scene 7, and then we’d email them to each other. Then I would work on his version of scene 6 and he would work on my version of scene 7. It was back and forth like that all the way through the script. It was really written in a way mostly by email. There were a couple of times that we got together for a brief period of time and worked together. But, for the most part, it was a lot of phone calls and then this sort of back and forth that technology gives us these days where we can do that. It just opens the world up. If that wasn’t possible, I never could have worked with him otherwise because he’s not here. Ten years ago, that would have been absolutely impossible. We’d be shipping pages back and forth to each other. Whereas, this way, he’d send me a scene and I could call him five minutes later and say, “Oh I like it. What do you think of putting this line in?” There was just an immediacy and it’s also our personalities. It worked.
What did Annette Bening and Ed Harris bring to their roles?
POSIN: The thing that struck me within five minutes of meeting both of them is that they are such authentic human beings. I didn’t feel any falseness or any pretense. Fame is a really unnatural fate for a human being. It’s relatively new in human history that people that are famous before the last one hundred years or so have been trained from birth to be famous. They were princes. They became saints. They were told this is how you conduct yourself. And now, you have no idea. I find that it changes a lot of people’s personalities and it preys on their insecurities. And yet, with both Annette and Ed, and I’m convinced this is the secret to why they are such good actors, within a few minutes of meeting them, we’re just talking about our lives, our kids, our families, our bosses, our joys. It really impressed me about both of them.
Annette is such an advocate for her character. She so wants to convey the truth in any given moment that I was relieved to have her as a partner. I knew it from the first day we started talking about it that she was going to stand up for her character and she was going to stand up for what she believed was the truth in any given moment in the script.
Ed is such a unique treasure in my mind. There was a moment when I thought we weren’t going to get him because of availability issues. He wanted to do it but he was scheduled to do this Michael Bay movie. We were trying to squeeze his shooting schedule in between the first days he was on the Bay movie and then the two weeks on the other side of our shooting. It just looked like there was going to be a problem with the scheduling and it threw me into a real panic, because when you think about it, the qualities I wanted for that character were that he be American because he’s connected to some sort of tradition and art. He’s an artist. He comes from a certain school. I wanted him to feel authentic and like he belonged in this world in L.A. and the art world. I wanted him to be masculine and sexy, attractive and obviously of the age that’s called for in the movie. I also needed him to be this deeply vulnerable guy who has been wounded and who was vulnerable enough that he would believe that this [inaudible] guy was also an artist. Those qualities on some level are contradictory and are rarely found in the same person. I would joke with him that if he wasn’t going to be able to do it, the only other person I could think of for the role was Steve McQueen, the actor Steve McQueen. And it’s true. That’s the only other actor I can think of who combines those qualities like Ed does.
I found it fascinating to watch Ed Harris as he goes from one role to the other in the film and brings subtly different characterization to each.
POSIN: Yes, exactly. He really put a lot of his talent into it. We see very little of Garrett in the movie, and yet it’s important that he create an impression so that when you see Tom, the other character, later in the movie, you see that they obviously both look like Ed Harris but that they are different people. It’s not the same person. It’s not a reincarnation. It’s someone who looks remarkably similar to her husband, and that’s why the story with my mom was really a touchstone for me. I kept going back to that because it had really happened. The truth of that situation was that she had really seen this guy who was remarkably similar looking to my father, not identical, but so close that it spurred all these feelings.
Once you had a finished script and your lead cast tentatively in place, how long did it take for you to get the financing so you could start shooting? What was that process like?
POSIN: That was a brutal process. It was probably a year and a half. We had three strikes against us, because first of all, we’re a drama, and then age which is a real five letter word in this business, and we’re a love story. It’s not a romantic comedy. It’s just a true romance, although it does have a lot of suspense in it as well. The other thing is, as far as actors, they’re all over the age of 22 in the lead roles. It was very, very difficult despite the cast. Eventually, we actually gave up on getting the money from Hollywood and we were able to find a few wealthy individuals, mostly out of Texas, who felt like we did that they missed these kinds of movies. They wanted to see them, too. And so, they became our financiers. None of them had ever invested in a film before, and I have to say, I’m very proud that they’ve all gotten their money back before the movie has even opened. Hopefully, if we can reach that audience that we all believe is out there, it will just underscore that there is a demand for these kinds of movies and these stories that you don’t see very often in the movies.
Is there anything you wish you had known on day one of production? What did you learn in the process of making this?
POSIN: I learned a tremendous amount on this movie. I learned not only during production but in post-production, and even, as I was telling a friend the other day, I’ve learned so much just in the screening process in watching the movie with audiences over the last few weeks. I’m still in the flush of it, but it’s an incredible learning experience to see the movie with an audience. Regardless of any particular individual in an audience, when you get 300 or 400 or 600 people in a room together to watch a movie collectively, they are a film gene and they see everything you are intending. They don’t miss a beat. It’s really true. It’s been really fascinating to watch that process and to see how smart the audience is and how savvy. And then, you can literally track where they’re getting certain revelations and which emotional pivots occur during the story. I can’t say I wish I’d known it, but I can say I am so happy to have this experience and I’m looking forward to bringing it to the next movie. Hopefully every movie, and I’m sure it will be, is as much a learning experience as this one. It was for the most past a very, very joyful process. Editing the movie was the best summer I’ve had in 20 years. It was so much fun to have material this good with actors giving such strong performances with a really great chemistry between them. The magic of Annette and Ed is that I wouldn’t have one great take, I’d have six. They would all be true and real, but also with subtle differences. It really allowed me to fine tune the journey of the movie for the audience.
The locations you used were beautiful, particularly Nikki’s house, and so was the cinematography. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about choosing the locations and the contributions of your creative team?
POSIN: They’re brilliant, and in some cases, literally. Our Production Designer, Jeannine Oppewall, is a genius. She’s been nominated numerous times. The other thing that happens on these movies, besides not only do you have to design them or design the costumes as Judianna Makovsky did, or shoot the movie with the DP Antonio Riestra, but you have to do it under the conditions imposed by a limited budget, and that, in itself, requires a huge amount of creativity and sometimes sacrifice. With Nikki’s house, for example, she’s a stager and her husband was an architect, so these are people who are interested in design and the appearance of things. We needed the objects, the furniture, and the art in their house to reflect a lifetime of that. Jeannine got her start working at the Eames office for Ray and Charles Eames. She is a designer. Of course, we couldn’t afford to get any of that stuff for the movie, but Jeannine owns most of that furniture. It’s from her house. So literally, most of what’s in Nikki’s house comes from Jeannine’s living room. She would have dinner parties while we were shooting. Her friends would come over, and they thought she’d been robbed, because there was literally a card table and a couple of pull out chairs. She’d say, “No, no, no! It’s this damn indie movie I’m working on. They’ve taken all of my things!”
They’re immortalized on screen now.
POSIN: (Laughs) They are! The challenge of these movies is not only to bring hopefully your best work, but also to do it under these really tight conditions. It was a very fast shoot. We shot for 26 days. We had to have Los Angeles and Los Angeles was a challenge. It’s one of the most expensive places in the world to shoot as we all know. We were offered money to make the movie in Baton Rouge about a year earlier. I looked at it, but because I live here and I have fallen in love here, I think there is a beautiful, romantic side to Los Angeles. A few years ago, when Michael Mann made Collateral, I remember reading some of the reviews that said L.A. looked so spectacular and it did. But it was not a romantic L.A. It was kind of a cold, nighttime, street lamp L.A. That romantic L.A. was something that I had not seen in a long time in the movies and that’s what I was really going for. I wanted to show this side of L.A. that was beautiful and inspiring and romantic to bring these people together.
Your DP did a wonderful job capturing the romantic image of L.A. Can you talk a little about your collaboration, shooting digitally and capturing the look we see in the movie?
POSIN: The look of the movie goes against a lot of the trends right now. The trends tend to be really high contrast, and the blacks are really deep, and everything is very, very sharp. We shot on digital and that’s where everything is going. I had originally really resisted shooting digital mostly because I felt that I had never really seen a love story that moved me that was shot digitally. There’s something missing in that non-organic process. I just didn’t know what it was. I’d just never seen it, but because of the financial realities, we had to shoot on a digital camera. Antonio and I went down to Panavision, and we sat down there with another genius who was involved in our project, a guy named Dan Sasaki who worked with Panavision. I showed him 40 or 50 images and both paintings and pictures from other movies. A lot of the look that we were after was a softer, romantic look with a lower contrast and looking back at those movies like Doctor Zhivago and Vertigo, even Heaven Can Wait where the lights bloom a little bit. Also, because of the actors that we have in the movie, I didn’t want to see every little nitty gritty as you would with digital. He was great and he said, “Okay, I see what you want here.” He put together a bunch of test lenses for us, and we went down there with Ed and Annette, and we did a few days of test shooting in costumes under every possible lighting condition using different variations of those lenses and eventually zeroing in on the look you see in the movie. I’m really proud now of the way the movie looks, and I think that you can fall in love on digital. (Laughs) In fact, a funny epilogue to all of that is that the movie used to be called The Look of Love, and so those lenses are now at Panavision. I’ve been told by a cinematographer friend that they are constantly being requested, and they’re almost never available, and they’re known as The Look of Love lenses. (Laughs) We shot on the Arri Alexa which is the camera most movies are shot on. It’s a fine camera. So much of it has to do with the lenses kind of interpreting, being the filter between the reality and what the camera records. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I feel like it has a look that bucks the trend and is emotionally right for our movie.
A lot of production has gone out of California because other states are willing to offer a guaranteed rebate to promote the business of filmmaking in their states. What are your thoughts on the impact of the California Tax Rebate which you actually won for this film and the impact of California’s lottery system on filmmaking in this state?
POSIN: That’s the other reason that I wanted to stay in L.A., because I live here and a lot of my friends work in the movie business, above and below the line. I know what it means to keep a production here and how many jobs that creates and how grateful people are, not only for the work, but also, even in the case of people like Annette Bening and Ed Harris, to have the work and then be able to go home and sleep in their own bed at night has really become a unique thing and a treasure. The problem with the lottery system is that because you can’t count on it, the investors, the financiers can’t account for it in their budgets. So, it doesn’t actually help get the movie made in most cases. It’s kind of like an added bonus. It’s like, “Okay. We’ve got our financing. Oh, and now we’ve got the rebate.” In our case, that really sealed the deal. We were kind of on the bubble, and then when we got that, it really closed it. But if we had known a year before that yes, if we set this movie in L.A. and shoot in L.A., we will get a rebate, we would have gotten the movie made that much sooner. It clearly has an enormous impact. I hope that they institute something similar to what exists in these other places. You can see where the incentives are working because all the work is going there. I have so many friends I can’t even tell you. I can’t even count how many friends are working in Georgia right now. A couple of years ago it was New Mexico and also New York City. This is Hollywood. We should really keep as much of it here as we can. This is where so many top crews are. Yes, I’m a proponent. (Laughs)
I thought you made a very good point on your blog which I read. There’s some beautiful work being done out of state, but it’s a shame to see so much of it leave Hollywood lured by rich tax incentives from outside California.
POSIN: You’ve seen all the studies that say one dollar as an incentive per $26 in economic activity. Whatever that formula is, it adds up to huge sums of money and study after study has shown that. It feels like a no brainer when I hear people say, “Well that’s just giving money to rich producers.” I’m like, “Come on a film set. Look at who’s there.” There’s a hundred people there. If one of them is a rich producer, which in our case is not the case, they’re indie producers. But if there’s a rich producer on a set, that’s one guy, and then there’s all these other people with families and mortgages.
Who are your favorite directors whose work has inspired your own approach as a filmmaker?
POSIN: There are so many. I can tell you off the top of my head today, but it changes day to day. I would say, to put them in categories from classic Hollywood, Billy Wilder for sure, Orson Welles for sure, John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks. Charlie Chaplin was really my first love in the movies. When I first discovered Charlie Chaplin, I was a kid. I watched every single movie he ever made and the shorts. I had to read all the books about him. It really was a crush. It was a love affair.
I’m a big fan of Charlie Chaplin. I’ve had some cool conversations over the years with my aunt who actually grew up watching his films in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
POSIN: That’s amazing. I had that experience when I was talking to Warren Beatty. I got to know Warren a little through this process of making this movie and I was telling him one day about how much I loved Chaplin and how it really got me started in appreciating movies. He smiled and said, “Oh yeah, Charlie was a friend of mine.” And then he proceeded to tell me this whole story about Chaplin. It was late in Chaplin’s career, and he was making the Marlon Brando/Sophia Loren movie (A Countess from Hong Kong), but Warren knew him, and that was an amazing thing to hear about what he was like first person.
And then, from the ‘70s, I’m a huge fan of Warren Beatty and Hal Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg. But then also, because my parents were from Russia and my father was a director there, I was also inundated with European cinema, so obviously the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky and in Poland Krzysztof Kieślowski. My parents considered the Italian directors as really the gods, so Fellini and Antonioni who wrote Fellini. In France, it was Truffaut. Ingmar Bergman, of course, always. (Laughs) I’m a big lover of cinema, and to the degree that I can, I try and live in a bubble of just great movies.
What films have inspired you? Do you have any personal favorites?
POSIN: I’ve had certain formative experiences with movies. I didn’t mention David Lean. I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago on the big screen and they were just eye-opening to me. I felt like I’d never seen anything like it. The same thing happened when I saw Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I just thought it was filmmaking on such a grand level that it hit me very, very deeply. And then, Citizen Kane I’ve seen I don’t know how many times and really studied and read all about it in that wonderful book that Peter Bogdanovich did in conversations with Orson Welles (Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors). Oh, and I didn’t mention Hitchcock and Vertigo, among others. He was really the master. He’s really to such a huge degree created the grammar that we all use now in movies. We live in a lucky time where these movies are available. I fall in love with a new one it feels like every month.
What do you look for in the projects that you choose to write and direct?
POSIN: I look for a personal way in. I think that’s the best way I can say it. It has to somehow touch me, and not necessarily consciously relate, but at least unconsciously relate to something I’m going through in my own life. Sometimes I don’t discover it until after I’m done with the project, but I can feel it. It’s more than a feeling of, “Oh I’d like to see this movie.” It’s more a feeling of “Nobody else in the world can make this movie but me.” I know exactly what it should be. It comes like that. When I start to get that inkling, I try and follow that. Following that thread is what I did on The Face of Love. It felt like there was something that deeply connected me to the story, that felt like only I could tell it, and I could tell it better than anyone.
Can you talk about Duchess, the comedy drama you’ve co-written with Nicholas Kazan?
POSIN: Yes. Glenn Close is going to play the character of Anna Anderson who was the woman who claimed that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. It’s an interesting thing. When the story got picked up and reprinted, a lot of places in the headline – this is just as an aside – wrote, “Glenn Close to play imposter Anastasia.” There’s a lot of evidence both ways that she both was the Grand Duchess and also there’s debate about it. Our script is based on a true event that happened towards the end of her life. In the movie, we’re trying to present as fairly as we can both sides of that debate and let the audience decide what they think. But it was interesting. I noticed that kept getting picked up and I didn’t understand why they were saying imposter. It was not our take on it.
What’s the status of it right now?
POSIN: We’re just looking for the guy who would play opposite her right now. We’re hoping to get a really good actor shortly, and if he agrees to do it, then we’ll see about the financing. A lot of our financiers for The Face of Love are interested in coming back with us. My producers, Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis, are very smart and responsible. Julie has never made a movie where the investors didn’t get their money back, and so, for the most part, they’re all game to go again. Hopefully, the financing will be easier for this one, although I don’t want to jinx it. It’s the only part of the process that I don’t enjoy. I love directing and writing, but it’s a necessary evil to get to the set and to get a finished movie. It can be very challenging sometimes. It’s getting easier. There were a few years there after the 2008 financial crisis that were particularly brutal on everybody and all my friends who were working on their pictures as well. It seems like we’re coming out of it maybe, so hopefully it will get a little easier.
Is there anything else you’re currently writing or working on beyond Duchess?
POSIN: I’m always writing. I get up every morning and sit down at the writing desk and I try to be disciplined about it. I’m not deep into a screenplay at the moment, but I’m hoping Duchess will be the next project. In Hollywood, you never know so it’s good to have a backup. I’m keeping my options open.
The Face of Love is now playing in limited release.